Massachusetts Supreme Court Rules Universities have Limited Duty to Prevent Student Suicide

Massachusetts Supreme Court Rules Universities have Limited Duty to Prevent Student Suicide
Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr's Higher Education Highlights Summer 2018
Zachary W. Berk
Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr's Higher Education Highlights Summer 2018

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (the "SJC") recently issued a major decision concerning the duty of colleges and universities to prevent student suicide that could serve as a guide for jurisdictions across the country.  In an attempt to respect the dynamics of the "modern university-student relationship," the SJC set forth a narrow ruling that universities must take "reasonable measures" to protect a student from self-harm when it has "actual knowledge" of a student's recent or planned attempt to commit suicide.   

The SJC's ruling was set forth in the context of the case of Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 479 Mass. 436 (2018).  In Nguyen, the father of a deceased graduate student, Han Duy Nguyen, sued MIT, an assistant dean and two professors for alleged negligence in failing to prevent his son’s suicide.

At the time of his death, Nguyen was twenty-five years old, lived off-campus, and was studying marketing at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  In May 2007, Nguyen began reaching out to MIT administration and faculty for assistance with test taking issues because he had been failing exams.  In the course of discussions about his test taking problems, Nguyen was referred to, and briefly met with, MIT’s mental health and counseling services.  Over the next two years, Nguyen disclosed to various MIT personnel (other than faculty) that he suffered from a long history of depression and had made two suicide attempts during college, but repeatedly denied having any present suicidal ideation.  Nguyen further notified MIT that he was being treated by several non-university mental health professionals and, as a result, did not need to be treated by MIT’s mental health services.  Nguyen’s professors knew he was having academic difficulties, which they understood were due to insomnia and test taking anxiety.  They attempted to assist Nguyen through the program and even offered to help him obtain a leave from the program during a particularly difficult time.  Nguyen, however, chose not to seek a leave and ultimately committed suicide by jumping off a building immediately after having a difficult conversation with a professor about a perceived unprofessional email Nguyen sent to a project investigator.

Before determining whether MIT could be held liable for negligence under these facts, the SJC had to determine what duty, if any, MIT had to take steps to prevent Nguyen from harming himself.  The SJC recognized that, although typically there is no duty to prevent another person from committing suicide, special relationships, such as a custodial relationship (e.g., a jail or a hospital), can impose affirmative duties on institutions to rescue people.  The SJC then examined the special relationship that currently exists between institutions and their students, which it described as "respectful of student autonomy and privacy."  The SJC further recognized that although students are independent adults, they are also young and vulnerable, and that although institutions are primarily focused on educating and are "no longer ... acting in loco parentis," they have a "wide-ranging involvement in the lives of their students."

Balancing these interests led the SJC to articulate a rule that confers institutions with a heightened responsibility to prevent student suicide, but only in narrow circumstances where there are red flags that are clear and undeniable.  Specifically, the SJC held that "[w]here a university has actual knowledge of a student’s suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculation, or of a student's stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, the university has a duty to take reasonable measures under the circumstances to protect the student from self-harm."  The SJC emphasized that this is a limited duty and is only triggered when a student states an intent to commit suicide, not just when a student is known to have suicidal ideation.

The SJC attempted to define the "reasonable measures" that would satisfy a university’s obligation to care for a student known to be a significant suicide risk.  Among other things, the SJC stated that institutions should initiate their suicide prevention protocol (if such a protocol exists), notify appropriate officials at the school responsible for assisting the student in obtaining clinical care and notifying the student’s emergency contact, and contact emergency police, fire and/or medical personnel.   

Applying these standards, the SJC found that the trial court properly dismissed the plaintiff’s negligence claims without a trial.  The SJC determined that Nguyen, although clearly troubled, had not stated a present intent to commit suicide nor had he attempted suicide at MIT or recently before matriculating at MIT.  The SJC further noted that it was proper for MIT to respect Nguyen's wishes with regard to his decision to decline treatment at MIT's mental health clinic in favor of receiving help from non-university psychiatric professionals.

While this decision should give colleges and universities comfort that they only have a duty to act to prevent student suicide under circumstances where it should be apparent that a student is imminently threatening suicide, it does leave some questions unanswered.  For example, the SJC did not define what constitutes a "recent" suicide attempt, it did not discuss at what point a university is relieved of its obligation to take "reasonable measures" to prevent a student from engaging in self-harm, and it did not provide an exhaustive, definitive list of reasonable measures that should be taken when a student is determined to be a substantial suicide risk.  At a minimum, the Nguyen case should serve as a reminder to colleges and universities to reassess and reiterate their suicide prevention protocols and procedures to ensure they take appropriate action when a suicide risk becomes evident.